What follows is a sort of follow-up to Joey’s excellent post last week analyzing reactions to the 1978 revelation ending the race-based priesthood and temple ban. I am admittedly far outside of my own field here, and it is entirely possible I’m not aware of some study that has already been written and published. Please feel free to point out any such work in the comments, and to otherwise respond to the post.
In December 2007, perennial presidential candidate and prominent Mormon Mitt Romney was asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about the 1978 revelation that signaled a shift in LDS church policy and lifted the ban that had previously denied people of African descent ordination to the priesthood and entrance into LDS temples. Romney’s response was a familiar one to most Mormons:
I can remember when I heard about the change being made. I was driving home from — I think it was law school, but I was driving home — going through the Fresh Pond rotary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I heard it on the radio and I pulled over and literally wept. Even to this day, it’s emotional.
Such memories are common among Mormons old enough to remember the announcement. Dallin Oaks, then serving as president of Brigham Young University, recalled in a 2007 interview with documentarian Helen Whitney receiving the news while with his family at their mountain cabin. “I went outside and I told my boys, and I sat down [voice cracks with emotion] on that pile of dirt and cried. And I still feel emotion for that moment.” While many recall these individual moments of emotion and gratitude, others remember communal celebration. Times and Seasons blogger Alison Moore Smith recently described her memory of what transpired in her Provo, Utah neighborhood:
In spite of growing up in ultra-conservative “Happy Valley,” when the priesthood ban was lifted for blacks in 1978, my mom came running down the stairs screaming for joy. People in my neighborhood very literally flooded into the streets, hugging and dancing and crying with happiness.
Similar memories seem to be offered every time the topic is raised in Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society meetings. Everyone seemingly remembers not only where they were, but also who they were with, and how they felt. I’ve little desire to challenge either the sincerity or the accuracy of those memories. In an effort to better understand the immediate impact of the 1978 revelation on the church collectively and individual members, I would like to pose some questions and offer some preliminary thoughts on the subject.
I am far from an expert, but do know enough about the scientific a historical study of memory to understand that memories—especially of particularly emotional or significant events—change over time, shaped by their communal sharing and the added perspective that comes with the passage of time. I’ve intentionally avoided pursuing that particular line of thought here, both because I am not an expert and because I don’t want to come across as challenging the sincerity of those memories.
What I’d like to do instead is address two points in particular: The first is more speculative (at least at this point) and the second is, I think, more sound. Both, I hope, complicate the accepted wisdom that “reaction worldwide [to the revelation] was overwhelmingly positive among Church members.”
Point 1: I wonder just what it was that provoked the emotional responses that came in the hours, days, and months following the June 9, 1978 announcement. The tears of joy and relief came, at least in part, to the spiritually egalitarian convictions of many Mormons. Elder Oaks recalled being “troubled by this subject through college and my graduate school, at the University of Chicago where I went to law school.” He described the “many black acquaintances” he had in Chicago and that “many times … my heart ached for that, and it ached for my Church, which I knew to be true and yet blessings of that Church were not available to a significant segment of our Heavenly Father’s children.” I wonder, though, if some of the joy—some of the “hugging and dancing and crying with happiness”—came not out of a concern for the spiritual well-being and progression of their black brothers and sisters, but rather out of a relief that the Church would no longer be publicly criticized for its exclusionary policy; that the boycotts of BYU athletics would cease, that the demonstrations against and denunciations of Mormonism would end, and that the stinging charges of racism would become a thing of the past.
Point 2: There were, of course, some Mormons who did not respond overwhelmingly positive to the announcement. During my time at BYU, I was introduced to another student, a Utah native, who had recently been baptized into the LDS Church. His ancestors, he told me, were Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains, but his parents left the church in the aftermath of the revelation on the priesthood, believing it to be in apostasy. I’ve heard from another friend whose grandparents were living in Bermuda at the time, that several ward leaders similarly left the church in response to the revelation. Still another friend told me of a man in his ward who admitted to initially responding by asking “is the priesthood special if anybody can have it?” Of course, each of those stories and memories are mere anecdotes. What is needed is a fine-grained analysis of contemporary sources from 1978—newspapers, diaries, journals, and other such recorded observations—that reveal the variety of reactions by church members to the news. One such source comes from the December 1980 issue of Sunstone. There, Mormon Folklorists William Wilson and Richard Poulsen reported the results of “a careful sampling of Mormon folklore” in 1978 and 1979. They reported that “a new cycle of jokes … developed immediately following the announcement” and proposed that the off-color and frankly racist jokes warranted at least an asterisk in any conclusions about the universal elation in response to the 1978 revelation among Mormons. Some of the jokes made fun of the stereotyped “black” manner of speaking and habit by rhetorically inserting newly black priesthood holders into everyday Mormon conversations:
Q: How do you know when the millennium is here?
A: When you open your door and hear, “Hi! Wees you
new home teachers.”
Isa yo new home teacher.
They’re putting a new song in the hymnbook:
“Come, Come Ye Saints, Do-da, Do-da.”
Others offered new spins on racist jokes in circulation among Latter-day Saints prior to 1978. “Why are crows black? Because they wouldn’t eat crickets in the pre-existence” became “Crows can now eat crickets.” Still others, in the words of Wilson and Poulsen, “had a sharper bite.” To wit:
Have you heard of the new office in the Aaronic priesthood?
There will be priests, teachers, deacons, and de-coons.
Did you hear they’ve raised tithing to 12 percent?
To pay for busing.
What to make of these distasteful “jokes” is difficult. Wilson and Poulsen concluded that “they suggest that many Mormons were still gripped by the bigotry of the past and were still having trouble keeping pace with their leaders.” This is likely an accurate observation, but it seems possible, perhaps even likely, that the tellers of these jokes, and those who laughed and then repeated them, were also among those who had earlier wept for joy and celebrated the revelation. Individuals are complex: Our actions are not always consistent, and the motives and meanings behind them not always immediately obvious.
In a 1983 essay, sociologist Armand Mauss observed that “in parts of the Mormon heartland, at least, there was a period of discomfiture” in the wake of the revelation, citing the work of Wilson and Poulsen as evidence. It seems likely that such discomfiture existed beyond the Book of Mormon belt, too, and more research on how the revelation was received in regions ranging from the West Indies to apartheid-plagued South Africa, and from Mexico City to Managua, would go a long way toward rounding out our understanding and helping us better gauge how Mormons around the world responded to the historic events of June 1978.
 Armand Mauss, “The Fading of the Pharaohs’ Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church,” in Lester E. Bush and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midwale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983), 169. See also Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 241. Edward Kimball’s excellent 2008 BYU Studies article on “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on the Priesthood” documents the reaction of several high-ranking church officials, along with that of African American and Afro-Brazilian Latter-day Saints. He mostly ignores, though, the reactions of rank-and-file white Latter-day Saints.